The President as Disciplinarian: Wilson, Roosevelt, and Congressional Primaries

By Schurin, Ronald | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The President as Disciplinarian: Wilson, Roosevelt, and Congressional Primaries


Schurin, Ronald, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The role of party leader ranks high in every standard listing of presidential responsibilities. Yet, as analysts ranging from E. E. Schattschneider(1) to James MacGregor BUMS(2) have demonstrated, in a political system built on a foundation of competing power centers and characterized by traditions of localism, the president's relationship to his party is ambiguous. His is the party's most public face; he generally controls the party's central administrative machinery, the National Committee and its staff; and he usually commands the intraparty respect accruing to one who has won the grand prize in a highly competitive game. He can allocate or withhold patronage to qualified party members and can bestow or withhold the public blessing of his personal prestige. But the president has no statutory power over party members in general or legislators of his party in particular; he cannot regulate entry into the party's legislative caucus. Neustadt writes that the power to lead is the power to persuade.(3) In party matters, the president of the United States leads by persuasion or not at all.

For adherents of the doctrine of responsible party government and believers in a strong presidency alike, this poses troublesome questions. How can a political party develop, advocate, or implement a coherent, agenda when the ostensible leader of the organization lacks the explicit ability to reward or punish? What alternate strategies are at the president's command, and how effectively can they be used?

This article explores one particular party leadership and discipline-enforcing strategy employed by two icons of the modern Democratic Party, both of whom were advocates (at least in theory and at least part of the time) of party government and both of whom are consistently placed in the ranks of "strong" presidents. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt each advocated a progressive agenda, and each was frustrated by the resistance to that agenda by some Democratic members of Congress. Each adopted as one means of response the unusual tactic of intervention in the congressional nominating process to oppose their intraparty foes.

Wilson's record in this effort was modestly successful but little noted at the time, or later. Roosevelt's attempt attracted wide attention and is generally regarded as a tactical disaster. I review here the specific actions taken by each president and suggest why they had limited effect or, in Roosevelt's case, may have been counterproductive. My underlying contention is that the rules of the game in American politics--separation of powers, federalism, and, above all, a traditional attachment to the concept of local autonomy--have curtailed the capacity of presidents in general, and these two presidents in particular, to act as effective disciplinarians. Those factors remain significant in the political environment of the late 1990s.

Modes of Midterm Involvement

Although now common and expected, direct public presidential engagement in midterm elections is a relatively recent phenomenon. Through the first decades of the twentieth century, presidents certainly worked to help their friends and hinder their enemies, but they did so through behind-the-scenes use of power resources.(4)

It was not until the postwar years that presidential campaigning became a staple of midterm battles; it is now standard behavior. Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan all tried to transfer their own popularity to their party's local nominees, and even presidents in political difficulty have toured the country on behalf of their party's candidates. To cite one recent example, in the third week of October 1994, with his approval rating hovering at 40 percent, Bill Clinton went to New York, California, Washington state, and Ohio in a generally fruitless effort to help Democrats running for Congress.

But if midterm campaigning for the party is standard behavior, public campaigning within the party--that is, engagement in primary battles--is not. …

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